For the season, the Lakers are still 29th in the league in offensive efficiency. Though they have improved a great deal since the All-Star break — they have posted a 106.1 rating, good for 14th in the league for that stretch — they have fallen off that pace since February 26th (103.2 rating since that date) when Byron Scott implemented a “new set” which has become the base of their offense.
Still, the 103.2 rating since the change is still good for 19th over that period and shows marked improvement over their season long numbers. One of the reasons their offense has improved is because they are running more off-ball actions which help promote side to side ball movement. Byron mentioned an impetus to the change was the analytics staff noting the team was near the bottom of the league in the ball changing sides of the floor (and in making passes in general) and wanted to rectify that.
Hence, a new set, more movement, and more passing. While opponents have surely been scouting what the Lakers are doing and, in turn, disrupting some of their actions, it would be hard to argue against the team doing better. It’s right there in the numbers and, if you’ve been watching, in little wrinkles which are showing up each game.
For example, against the Grizzlies on Tuesday, the Lakers ran a little flare screen action which set up a nice Kobe Bryant three pointer:
The play starts with what has become a staple of the Lakers’ new look: a series of quick passes and player cuts to get the defense in motion. Ultimately, the ball reverses from Randle, to Kobe, to Clarkson, who then enters the ball into Randle who, after cutting through after making his pass to Kobe, is setting up for a mid-post isolation.
Randle does what he does best by putting the ball on the floor and looking to attack middle. As Randle drives, though, the backside of the offense doesn’t just stand and watch. Look at Russell who sees both his man and Kobe’s man start to ball watch and creep into help position. Once these defenders turn their heads, Russell sets a back/flare screen for Kobe and simultaneously signals Randle to skip the ball. Randle recognizes the opening and hits Kobe who then buries the three pointer.
There is nothing ground breaking here. In fact, this is an action many teams run all the time. Still, it’s testament to the coaches and the players on the floor for working on trying to develop more side to side movement and then executing it when on the floor. As an aside, the player I credit most here is Russell as he’s the guy who not only recognized what the help defense was doing, but took initiative to set the pick and then signal Randle to make the correct read.
These are nice first steps, but the team needs more of this. In recent games these guys (especially the starting group) have fallen back on bad habits in their half court offense, relying too much on isolation basketball and not doing enough passing or off ball work to stimulate scoring. The result has been some bad stretches on offense and has led to Byron Scott commenting more than once that the 1st unit isn’t showing much trust in each other.
After Wednesday’s loss to the Suns, D’Angelo Russell took blame for those trust issues saying as the point guard it is on him to better organize the offense and bring everyone together. There’s truth there, but as Julius Randle also noted, nearly all these players have been “the guy” most of their careers and they’re going to have to learn to “sacrifice something” for the betterment of the team.
This is especially difficult for young players to follow through with when on the court, though. The natural development curve for most talented young players is typically 4 steps (note, this is a simplistic version): 1). Work through some initial struggles 2). Find parts of your game which work in the NBA 3). Fine tune those strengths to find sustained individual success which, hopefully, leads to more team success 4). Understand how to better integrate what you do well into the team concept in order to achieve loftier team goals.
In other words, most young players have to learn how to get theirs consistently before they can take the next step of becoming more team-centric in their approach. This always reminds of Kobe saying that, while he appreciates all the success he had early in his career with Shaq, in some ways he resented having to curtail his game and integrate it into the team structure so early in his development curve. He wanted to show he could dominate as “the man”, but instead he took a supporting role — a massively important one, but a supporting one to Shaq all the same — in order to win championships.
The current group of Lakers’ youngsters are still in steps one and two in the curve above. It’s nice that Randle is recognizing what the end game is, but that will come in time; it will come as they start to learn how to control the game more and then find ways to make things easier on themselves and their teammates. In some ways, Russell — the youngest of all of them — seems to be the furthest ahead in being able to recognize these situations best.
Hopefully, though, they all grow and learn together. The play above is a good example of what can happen when they are all on the same page.